Markus Wulff is the director of digital innovation at Grow, a brand and design agency with expertise in the circular economy, renewable materials and intelligent packaging. Wulff is part of their smart and sustainable packaging offering and helps develop concepts that allow packages to interact with smartphones, wearables, home appliances and other devices to enable interactive experiences that benefit both consumers and brands.

“I work with smart packaging, or what is known as active or intelligent packaging,” says Wulff. “I think a lot of brands focus on digital campaigns or marketing and digitalization separately to their retail and packaging operations. But why not merge these? Brands spend a lot on media campaigns to build customer relationships, but they actually have the greatest asset themselves – packaging. The packaging can be a media channel.”

Wulff has worked with many brands to help them leverage their physical products by adding digital services to them. This is done primarily by using the product, or the packaging, as a digital touchpoint that accesses a digital service or interactive experience. “Packaging has the potential to be the most important digital touchpoint for any brand,” he says. “And of course, the main reason to do this is because adding digital services or experiences to physical products can really help increase the brand experience and therefore brand loyalty among customers.”

The most common digital services and experiences that are activated from digital touchpoints today mostly relate to extra layers of product information.

“Traditionally, product information is presented on the package,” Wulff says. “But consumers today increasingly want to know things like where does this product come from, are there any additional services I get from buying this product, how does it support my local area in terms of sustainability, is there an easy way for reordering? Smart packaging can make it easy for the consumer to access this information. They can open an app by just tapping their smart phone against the package.”

Wulff suggests that this can be especially useful for brands which produce packages globally but need to adhere to different local regulations when it comes to the provision of product information. He also points out that information can be provided in innovative ways, such as showing consumers with interactive video guides how to build furniture or assemble electronic equipment they have purchased.

Wulff cites an example in which he helped create a digital compatibility guide for a power drill company. This meant that consumers could scan the package in a shop before making a purchase to see what drills or accessories they would need for the surface they needed to drill into.

“The food and beverage industry could also really benefit from this in many ways,” he adds. “You could use smart packaging to monitor, for example, what temperature a product was at in your car on the way home from the shop. This could affect the best before dates, either for the better or the worse and is something that would really improve the brand experience for both our customers and end users in a very innovative way.

“These digital services can guide consumers to use products in the best ways, to make them ever better,” Wulff adds. “And that is essential for increasing brand loyalty. Especially, but not only, for premium sectors such as the cosmetics and beauty industry, where a brand needs to deliver more than just the product. You buy something you want to be associated with. The brand can help deliver this with digital services, such as augmented realty experiences, for example, to identify how the product could be applied.”

In another example of how to improve the brand experience, Wulff suggests that drinks companies could provide simple interactive guides on what cocktails can be made with the product and how to mix them. They could perhaps even suggest cocktails that would use the strange alcohols in the back of the cupboards that nobody knows what to do with.

“If you know that you can get deeper product information or easily find out the differences between product A and product B, or get a fun new brand experience, you will be more loyal to those brands that are supplying it, that are being more transparent,” he adds.

Digital interactions also create big data. This means, Wulff points out, that in the future, if packaging and products are used to activate digital services, they will generate lots of data on consumer behaviour and therefore serve as significant marketing tools.

Wulff says that while a lot of brands believe that the cost of applying this technology to scale make it prohibitive, this is not the case anymore. He also says that at the moment, a lot of people still think that this is something that is being played around with by techy innovators, rather than something connected to real business opportunities.

“We need to have more ambassadors that realise the opportunities,” he says. “Or more first movers to establish the trend. But we have seen that as soon as marketing departments see that packaging can be used as a marketing or loyalty channel, they realise it really needs to be added to the mix. Those brands that see packaging as something more than just a container, or a static piece of cardboard, will reap impressive completive advantages.

“But brands really need to do the business and product development, where digital is part of the product offering and the package is the enabler or the bridge between the physical product and the service offering, at the beginning. It won’t work if they see this as something that can be added afterwards.”

Wulff says that adding additional layers of contextual product information to the packaging is the simplest way for a brand owner to start adding digital services or experiences to a physical product in relation to packaging. “I think it is a good start. You give a value to the consumer. It might be something that cannot be written on the actual package because you don’t have that much space, and information that helps remove obstacles from buying a product, or helps the consumers know how to use it, or use the product in the best way in different contexts. These are all ideas that I believe will really create brand loyalty.”